Proposal: planting an aspen at Over Phawhope, Ettrick Head

This post is about the practicality of planting an aspen.
The context: 2011 is International Year of Forests. An initiative of the Forest Bookstore in Selkirk has led to a group project – installations at a site in the ancient Ettrick Forest, at the head of the Ettrick Valley in Over Phawhope.
‘Phawhope’ might mean variegated valley / the valley of different colours:
The shelter is maintained by the Mountain Bothy Association. It is surrounded in the main by sitka spruce plantation, portions of which have recently been clearfelled. The bothy has sheep grazing immediately next to it, along the valley. The ground is rough and waterlogged.
Apart from the dominant spruce, there has been other tree-planting. A conifer (noble fir?) stands by the bothy.  The river edge has been planted by Tweed Foundation as an effort to preserve riverine habitat – perhaps eight trees, at most 2.5 metres high – a mixture of hazel (?) and birch. Some grow reasonably – a few been axed (for the bothy fire?)
Closest to the bothy, starting at the tall fir, there is a line of six trees: birch, hazel (?) and ash extending along the west of the bothy (along the wall  on the right of the photo above). The first (closest to the fir) has been axed. The second is dead:
The third tree in line (whch would be it’s neighbour) is best established – a hazel? Then three ashes follow, nibbled to three different degrees:
My proposal is to plant a sapling in the space between these two dead trees (next to the fir) and to keep check on its progress until it is established.
Why? The project is about biodiversity and exchange. A broadleaf tree would in some way assist biodiversity in Ettrick Head (albeit at a symbolic level). The exchange element is about carbon dioxide. It would offer Southern Upland Way walkers a growing resource (at a point in time when the Way landscape is changing due to commercial plantation and windfarms). To plant a tree is a way to look forward (at a time when we are forced to adapt to inevitable climate change and accelerating biodiversity loss). This will coincide with a publication by Reforesting Scotland with specific advice and information about trees and planting. I will also provide 2D work in or near the bothy developing visually some aspect of the tree in its context.

I will plant the sapling in April 2011. The materials budget for my part of this project stretches to £85. I aim to use local expertise and suppliers.

This choice is informed by current advocacy of aspen by various conservation groups in Scotland. Visually, their shimmering movement will add liveliness to the backdrop of still spruce. Their thin-stemmed leaves play in the wind, incredibly holding on to the branch. They have a vibrant yellow leaf in autumn. From a biodiversity point of view, the invertebrate populations associated with aspen copses are well studied, and considered important by entomologists. In Scotland, aspen plays a role in the regeneration and restoration of woodland and is also it is envisaged that it can play a role in commercial forests as the value of its wood is reconsidered.
Comments to date (many thanks for these):

• from an entomological viewpoint: the presence of aspen does not mean associated invertebrates will be present – it is a widely distributed tree but the range of associated fauna only occur when there are stands of it. Single trees will not attract a density of species. Some invertebrate species need fallen trees, standing in particular ways and on a large scale. Aspen stands have been studied in the Highlands – see Malloch Society Research Report No1, the Entomological Value of Aspen inthe Scottish Highlands. Also see proceedings of a conference on the Biodiversity and Management of Aspen Woodlands published via SNH in 2002.
• the photograph of the nibbled tree within the tree guard looks like deer damage. This means I need a higher tree guard. I read that apsen are particularly attractive to herbivores. (I wonder what measures are taken in the forest to prevent deer damage?
• The idea of wolves at Ettrick head is intriguing – they have been called ‘painters of hills’ by Jim Crumley because they cut back herbivore grazing and allow different plant grwoth.  There is also an association of beavers with aspen.
When was the last wolf, the last beaver, seen at Phawhope?
• advice on its likely growth: “I would guess it would grow about one foot per year depending on soil and climate. It looks a wind swept situation, which could limit growth. Aspen spreads by suckering which makes it  unpopular in foresry since it takes nutrients from the profitable trees. In your situation it  would produce suckers around it every summer, but these would be browsed down by sheep and deer in the winter, and so would be no problem in the wider landscape. If the aspen was in an enclosed garden with other plants you might need to prune off the suckers each year.”
• How to produce aspen seeding (I should have started a year ago). They hardly ever seed. So you have to propagate them from root cuttings. At the beginning of March, dig up a root about half an inch to an inch circumference. Any length. Be careful not to bruise them, cut off any bruised bits if necessary. Put the root into medium, propagate, and after two weeks, they shoot. When the shoots are two inches high, cut them with a craft knife. Plant them into perlite and vermiculite, and leave another fortnight to root. Prick them out into compost, and keep them in a greenhouse till mid June. Keep in a pot till the next year.
• Plant on bare earth (clear away the grass) and put up what tree guards are necessary for the site. If deer are present, you need a high-sided guard. Rabbits need to be kept out with wire. Voles need a vole guard. Check the tree at the start of the growing season and in autumn for a couple of years. Play it by ear when to remove the tree guards, could be needed for several years.
More practical questions:

• What is the best robust design for a tree guard? (best to avoid wood as it will be tempting fodder for the bothy fire?)
•  What would it need protecting it from?
• Would it be good to feed / manure / mulch the sapling?
• Would any record of planting in Phawhope be available?
• Is there any cahnce of this in actuality increasing invertebrate biodiversity? What would that require?

3 thoughts on “Proposal: planting an aspen at Over Phawhope, Ettrick Head”

  1. Considering the hazards from deer, sheep,hares, rabbits, voles and Homo sapiens, I think you’d be well advised to plant several aspens to make sure one survives. The species is said to be specially palatable to browsers. The propagation process, if it succeeds at all, will produce a good number of seedlings (12-100 in my experience) and you should grow at least a dozen as they are vulnerable to disease in the nursery. I’m sure a home could be found for any surplus at Corehead or Carrifran.
    The wire protectors in your photos should be effective against deer and sheep but I think you should use vole guards as well as the mesh is too wide to keep the voles out

    (Borders Forest Trust adviser)


  2. I have seen a number of smallish natural stands of aspen south of the highlands but they are not known to support those great rarities that occur in Speyside. There is a short article in the latest issue of Socttish Wildlife so if you know a member of SWT you could look at it. It is popular journalism and misses a number of important points about Aspen woodland size being critical to the existence of the specialist insects, fungi and other lower plants. Who knows, if 8+ hectare areas could be created in linked sites from there to here these organisms might then occur. Not in our life time of course and possibly not possible!

    Preliminary feedback to your blog – you say that stands are necessary for the inverts (and don’t forget the bracket fungus at least for other kinds of life) but not how big. 8 hectares is big when you live here!! That’s why these things are restricted in the UK and I think we need to be explicit about this. Go to other parts of the northern hemisphere (USA, Canada, Scandinavia, Russia and points east) and that would be ridiculously small. You probably know that an Aspen tree in USA is the largest living organism in the world. Of course, it is not one tree as such but an area of trees all from suckers (= a clone) covering many square miles with an enormous biomass. In other words an entire forest made up of one connected unique genetic identity.



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